Twenty minutes of hope and Keira Walsh’s injury hell - England have cause for optimism after beating Denmark

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An injury to Keira Walsh has cast a dark cloud over England’s stuttering World Cup campaign - but they are still winning, and still have a chance.

For 20 minutes or so, it was the England who so brilliantly won last year’s European Championships. There may have been no Beth Mead, but it didn’t matter – Ella Toone was marauding across the final third, Lauren James and Rachel Daly were linking up superbly down the left, and the snappy, swift passing moves that defined the swashbuckling side that beat Germany at Wembley was all in place.

And there was the goal – and what a wonderful goal it was, James stepping up to the superstar plate just as England needed her to with Mead so cruelly sidelined. One first touch to bring the ball under her spell, a second to expertly guide it into the gap, and a third to send it sailing into the side-netting from 20 yards. It will be one of the goals of the tournament, and it puts England on the brink of the knock-outs. Just a point is now needed against China, should they beat the Haitians.

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AFP via Getty Images

Twenty minutes, then, packed with cause for optimism – and then the gut punch. Keira Walsh, Barcelona’s sublime deep-lying playmaker and the beating heart of this Lionesses side, down on the ground in anguish after her studs got stuck in the turf and her bodyweight came crushing through her knee. Armchair diagnoses are a foolish thing, but it was hard not to worry about the state of her cruciate ligaments, and impossible not to see the same injury that has robbed England of the services of Mead and captain Leah Williamson.

With Walsh stretchered off the field in evident pain, her face plastered with the grim realisation that her tournament may well be over, all the optimism dissipated. England became pedestrian again, the same trudging outfit that has struggled through their post-Euros schedule. The inspiration vanished, the service to the front line disappeared, and while England remained professional and largely comfortable in hanging on to their 1-0 win, they quickly stopped looking like tournament contenders.

Walsh is a hugely important player for England. Her raking passes and gift for splitting opposing midfields apart cannot be replicated by anyone else in a white shirt, and perhaps not by any other player in the tournament. And her absence creates tactical issues too.

For those first 20 minutes or so, the adventurous 3-4-2-1 formation introduced by Sarina Wiegman looked like a masterplan. Doubling up on the flanks pinned Denmark’s full-backs back and left Pernille Harder isolated up front, while Toone’s role behind Alessia Russo gave her free rein as Denmark tried to press Walsh as hard as possible to quieten her down.

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With Walsh off the field, Denmark’s midfield was freed up to defend against the attacking midfielders. Toone was tamped down, James was increasingly marginalised, and Russo was denied any service whatsoever. She remains one of the most predatory strikers in the Women’s Super League, capable of scoring from practically anywhere around the box, but needs to be passed the ball to have an impact. Marked out of the game – as her replacement, Beth England, was in the later stages – she was a non-factor. Finding a way to get balls into the central striker is a puzzle Wiegman simply must solve if England are to go deep in this World Cup.

AFP via Getty Images

As for replacing Walsh, assuming her injury as bad as it appears, well… that simply isn’t possible. All of England’s rhythm flows from her feet, and while her stand-in on the day, Manchester City’s Laura Coombs, is an experienced player who knows how to protect the ball and recycle possession, she doesn’t have the capacity to run the game in the way Walsh does. The creativity must come from further up the field, from James or Toone or Chloe Kelly, and it may require another tactical reshuffle in order to find that spark that was so obviously missing in the second half. With Coombs and Georgia Stanway at the heart of the midfield, England were able to largely control possession and keep Denmark at arm’s length (Nicoline Sørensen’s header off the woodwork notwithstanding), but they could not generate chances. England looked toothless.

Perhaps James can be the star. Hyped for longer than she has been a regular in the WSL, less still in the England team, she finally got her first start in a major tournament and made the difference on the day. Her magnificent strike gave England the win and her piratical performance in the first half was exactly what an England side without Mead required – but her subdued second period will be a concern. She has all the talent in the world, and most of the self-confidence. She will need to be at her best for England to progress.

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But let’s not let the dark clouds linger too long. There are causes for pessimism, but England got the job done, as they did against Haiti. They won, and are favourites to make the latter stages of the tournament (and will do so today if China fail to beat Haiti, a game that may be over by the time you read this). When they needed someone other than Walsh or Mead to step up to the plate in that final against Germany, Toone and Kelly did so. They have strength in depth, they have skill and guile, and as the opening salvoes of today’s match so aptly demonstrated, they can still put it all together to become an extremely dangerous side. They just need to find the right blend of tactics, personnel and individual inspiration to make it happen. If they can do that against China, we’ll all have plenty of cause for optimism once again.

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